On not getting a degree

A few weeks ago I enjoyed one of those jolts of the pleasure of recognition, when I began reading a piece in The Guardian by Mary Midgley, which began:
“During my long life I have had a lot of luck, one instance of which may be worth mentioning. I missed out on one of the regular phases of academic education. I never had the normal discipline of the PhD. In fact, I have spent much of my life in philosophy without ever getting those magic letters that qualify one to teach in universities. I doubt whether anyone would get away with that today.”

Later in the piece she describes why she sees failing to get that qualifications was lucky:
“I am not saying that the PhD training isn’t useful. It provides the indispensable skills of the lawyer. It shows you how to deal with difficult arguments, which is necessary in dealing with hard subjects. But that close work doesn’t help you to grasp the big questions that provide its context – the background issues out of which the small problems arose…”
On a much smaller scale, I too had a similar piece of luck. Back in the Seventies, when I was employed as Research Assistant at North East London Polytechnic I was enrolled as a MPhil student. At that time all Polytechnic degrees were validated by a national body, the Council National Academic Awards. Because the Integrated Design course I did at Ealing, was classified as a “vocational” art and design course, the CNNA had some reservations about whether I was qualified to do an MPhil. Eventually I did get registered with them, but not until some eighteen months later.
By that time, feeling that I was not bound by the restrictions of an MPhil programme, I embarked on a free ranging romp through all the resources NELP’s libraries made available to me along with the support offered by my supervisor and a number of other staff from a range of disciplines. It was a great education.
And, of course, despite a couple of attempts to narrow down my inquiry to produce a MPhil type dissertation once I had left NELP, I found myself caught up in other missions, which at the time felt more important, so I never got the qualification.
Do I have any regrets? Well these days the credentials of a formal academic qualification might be handy and not having one stands between me and some of the things I might like to do. But in terms of a rehearsal for many of the things I have most enjoyed doing since that time my wide ranging romp through the disciplines was a much better preparation than the narrow path I would have had to followed to get the degree.
So, I guess, on balance, I would agree with Mary Midgley and conclude that some times not getting qualified can count as a bit of luck, particularly for those of us in pursuit of purposive drift.